Have You Ever Wondered Why We Long for Happiness?

We are a happiness obsessed culture. Every day, a million Westerners type “happiness” into Google. There are hundreds of books telling you how to find happiness, podcasts discussing it, movies and songs all about it. Coming of age in the 90s, I can still remember the cheerful bubble-gum flavoured lyrics of R.E.M.’s classic Shiny Happy People. Whilst more seriously, among the most popular programs ever run at Harvard University were Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s lectures on positive psychology, nicknamed “The Happiness Course”.

But have you ever wondered why we humans pursue happiness? After all, the rest of the animal kingdom usually seems pretty content with just the biological basics: survival and reproduction. But humans? We need so much more than merely the bare necessities of life: so what is going on here?

Let’s explore this by thinking a bit more about happiness. Perhaps the first question is what exactly we mean by the word “happiness”. Ask most people “Do you want to be happy?” and of course they’ll say “Yes!” But inquire: “What do you mean by happy?” and that’s a bit tougher.

I love reading old books, for it gives one a different perspective, rather like talking to somebody from another culture. And reading one day I stumbled across something that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, observed: namely that there are actually four levels of happiness and to be truly happy, truly satisfied, we need to ensure that we are living at all four levels.

Happiness level 1 is basically animal happiness and is all about fulfilling your appetites. So, for example, I see the chocolate donut. I eat the donut. I am happy. I feel good—and I can, of course, if it’s a box of six and my wife isn’t watching, repeat this exercise. Eventually though, the happiness will be over (and pretty quickly if I indulge too much, if I misuse this appetite). The same is true of that other appetite, sex. In the context of committed love, sex can be amazing. But abuse it, for example treating the other person involved as a means rather than an end, then a great deal of unhappiness can result. Furthermore, if you misuse your appetites—eating to cope with anxiety, or having transient one-night stands to cope with loneliness or boredom—you will soon end up deeply unhappy. And if you’re unhappy at level 1, suggested Aristotle, the only way is up, to level 2.

Happiness level 2 is all about comparison, about having more or being better than the next person. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, with developing a skill and using it well. Excelling in sport, succeeding at work, coming top of the class, all that can bring happiness. But be warned: you won’t be at the top forever. Indeed, trying to live at happiness level 2 can be deeply stressful, as you worry what happens when you are no longer the fastest, smartest, or whatever. And even when you do win, sometimes that can be a hollow victory. In the movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics, there’s a moment where the coach, played by John Candy, says to the team: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

When happiness level 2 lets you down, you need to move up to level 3. Happiness level 3, said Aristotle, is all about living for somebody other than yourself. One example would be parenting; pouring your time and energy into caring for children. If you’re not a parent, you can still find other ways to serve others, giving of yourself to others less fortunate. But the problem is that these things also come to an end: those you care for will one day no longer need you. And if you’re not careful, this approach to life can also become profoundly selfish: the real reason you’re helping others is really only because it makes you feel good.

So where now? If happiness levels 1 through 3 don’t ultimately satisfy us, presumably the only way is up? So what lies at the top of this ladder, what precisely is happiness level 4? Well, to paraphrase our old friend Aristotle, level 4 comes when you get connected to an ultimate source of happiness outside of yourself.

Which reminds me of something that Jesus of Nazareth once said. Jesus had much to say about happiness, often highlighting our tendency to look for it in all the wrong places, which wearies and drains us; and so Jesus said:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.

The basic problem with happiness levels 1 through 3 is the weight of the effort is based on us—so we exhaust ourselves running, trying to reach that ever elusive goal of happiness, only to watch it constantly recede into the distance, like the end of the rainbow. Trying to find happiness this way will drive you to craziness, cynicism, or both.

But Jesus offers us something refreshingly different. For Jesus claimed to be God himself, stepping into space and time and history, and as the very one who made us, he is also the one who knows what we really need, what we were truly designed for.

There is nothing inherently wrong with food and sex, sport and success, generosity and self-giving. But they can never ultimately satisfy us. And for a very good reason: we were made for so much more. But if we make it our goal in life not to merely to be happy but to know Jesus, the one who also said “I have come that you might have life!”, then we can discover something infinitely more than a happiness whose shine quickly fades; but we can discover a joy that nothing or nobody can ever take away from us.